Tag Archives: southern hemisphere

Snakes on The Line

Last night there was a medium-sized snake up the Palm Nut tree. The dogs went ballistic. The bird were in a frenzy. Quite so when a slithery thing is in the vicinity of your abode. I was simply curious, albeit with a mild frisson of anxiety when I though of the critter falling out of the palm onto a barking pooch. And it reminded me of the first time I met a snake as a young idealistic expat with no snake experience. The following incident happened in October 1993.


About four weeks ago, just the day after I returned from a shopping trip to Ireland (which was lovely I must say), I met a snake for the very first time but was too stupid to make a big deal of it at the time. I have since learned that you treat snakes with a great deal of respect, and you certainly don’t do what I did. You do, in fact, make a very big deal out of it. In this corner of the world most people treat snakes according to the succinct Buddhist advice: “If you meet the Buddha kill him”. So if you happen to meet a snake on the Uganda Equator I have put together the following plan for immediate implementation.

1. Upon seeing this scary marvel of the wild back away – slowly or fast doesn’t matter but back away, even without reverse lights.
2. Open your mouth and yell loudly. This will ensure that people from both and near and far (after all everyone loves a break from work, especially if it involves an element of danger and fear – and perhaps machismo) will immediately run to your assistance.
3. Keep your eyes open and watch carefully while the brave men you have summoned examine the snake and then rush around madly to find sticks and stones.
4. Take the credit for finding the snake by telling everyone who has arrived to watch how scared you were when you first saw the unfortunate creature.
5. Close your eyes once more as the assembled men fling sticks and stones at the writhing creature making sure you are not targeted in the process.
6. Open your eyes when the victorious cry has gone up and press forward with the rest of the crowd to make sure the snake really is dead.
7. Hang around a bit longer recounting the story of the discovery and kill for all those arriving for the postmortem.
8 For the next few days tell everyone you meet how you made the grisly discovery, show them how big it was the way fishermen always do, and recount in embellished detail how it was killed.
This next point on The Plan is optional and only holds for really big snakes:
9. Organise mini guided tours to the spot where the snake was found and killed while recounting the story again to anyone willing to listen.

This is a good plan – not good for the snake, of course, and it will not be recommended by any wildlife organization – but it is a good plan. I did not do any of the above. What I did was stupid – I did get a lot of conversational mileage out of it since, but it was still stupid. This is how it went.

On a certain Tuesday I went home to make myself a light lunch and was humming happily as I thought of the wonderful lectures I would be able to write with the newly-acquired books (Philosophy 101 was on course after all despite the container heist when all my books were looted in Kenya), periodically relived various moments of the retail therapy, and wondered when I would use the smoked salmon sitting proudly on a prominent shelf in the fridge. The frothy eggs sizzled as they hit the oil in the first stage of being transformed into a tasty omelette, and they continued sizzling long past the stage when said sizzling should have fizzled out. The happy humming stopped while I wondered what kind of marvellous Ugandan eggs made so much noise.

As I looked under the table holding the small two-ring gas cooker looking for the source of a possible gas leak, I came face-to-fang with a huge (not fisherman huge but really huge) brown snake angrily hissing at me for daring to disturb its cool peaceful sleep with egg noises and humming. I calmly turned off the gas and crouched down to get a closer look at it. There it was, coiled in the corner: a quite beautiful snake but it was one annoyed snake and was letting me know it.

“What to do? Yes, of course Dee, dance for it. For what, the snake? Yeah, why not?” Why not indeed? Ten years earlier while walking in a forest in Southern Germany a friend had told me that snakes don’t like noise, or rather don’t like vibrations, and will slither away if they don’t like the approaching ambience. So there was nothing for it but to prance around the kitchen making incredibly loud stomping noises with my feet.
This manoeuvre is not in The Plan for the simple reason that it doesn’t work. What it does is make the snake even more angry and frightened, so frightened that it will start attack proceedings. For a snake this entails aggressive head raising and even louder sizzling while advancing slowly and menacingly towards the dancer. At this point I realised that danger was approaching and made a hastily ungracious escape from the kitchen. When the snake had finally stopped sizzling I crept back into the kitchen just in time to see my new acquaintance slither calmly through a frighteningly large gap, previously unnoticed, between the bottom of the back door and the floor, and into the safety of the jungle of my exotic back garden. I later revised this opinion of tropical landscaping and had the grass cutters in so that similar sizzlers couldn’t find cool refuge so close to my cooking table. I also rolled up some newspapers and taped them to the bottom of the door in case my friend wanted another performance of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Then I ate my lunch with even more appetite because of the unexpected exercise.

As I said, I didn’t know then what I know now, and a week later during a lull in a conversation I mentioned my pre-lunch dance routine to some colleagues. The following conversation should be read aloud quickly and with raised decibels.
“You did what?”
“What size was it?”
“What colour was it?”
“Did it have a flat head?”
“What were its markings like?”
“You really did that? God!”
“You’re mad! You danced at a Puff Adder! Dee, that thing is really dangerous. It could have bitten you because you cornered it.”
“But St Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland,” I protested.
“He what? Who?”
“St Patrick. He drove them all away so we Irish people have no training in snake-related behaviour.”
That excuse just didn’t justify my actions. They all looked at me with strange expressions: this mzungu (white person) is nuts their faces said. She is stupid their raised eyebrows said. But she may well be just a little bit brave their wide eyes said, because we would have followed The Plan.

In the time since then I have surprisingly made the acquaintance of a few more snakes, and while I haven’t quite followed The Plan, I haven’t done any ballet for them either. I now have a few theories about snakes.

1. You only see them if you want to see them. Some colleagues who have been in Africa for a lot longer have seen fewer snakes than I have.
2. Someone up there is making sure that the snake-deprived Irish abroad complete their educational experiences by allowing them to encounter more than their fair share of Eden’s bad guys.
3. Snakes only appear to those who believe in them — this theory works much in the same way as Douglas Adams’s theory about extra-terrestrials in strange flying crafts manifesting themselves to the gullible.

I am, however, quite proud of my actions on that long-ago Tuesday because the snake didn’t die. “I saved a snake life”, I often think to myself smugly. It didn’t get its head bashed in and die in agony all because of some wise advice given freely while stomping through the knee-deep leaves of a damp Bavarian forest floor.

Night Noises

March 1994 Night Noises

Nine months down the line and I’m still not entirely used to the noise of the African night: it truly is different from anything else you have ever heard. The few owl hoots and crickets we are familiar with in the northern hemisphere are nothing compared to the night chorus of the southern hemisphere. It starts just before the sun has slipped away and continues unabated through most of the early part of the night. Crickets start first, then the flogs down in the swamp and in the dog’s bath at the bottom of the garden join in, and then all sorts of insects contribute their own strange noises intermittently until it all becomes a glorious symphony.
The flogs, of course, come in different voices: sopranos, tenors, and bases, all with different songs. Flogs, by the way, are really frogs as you’ve probably guessed, but in Uganda, as in some of the Far Eastern countries, rs and ls get confused in English. Before Christmas I was in the staff club on a no-current night having my Special by paraffin lamp, when I felt something cold and slimy land on my leg. I’m not normally that squeamish but the snake episode had taught me not to take anything for granted. My scream brought Sefus the barman to my side and he promptly dropped to the ground to peer under the table. Sadly, his machismo was not going to be measured: “It’s only a flog, Dee”, he said rather despondently. So ‘flogs’ they have been ever since.
The other night I got to bed quite late on account of having been invited by the Irish Consul to a bit of a do in Kampala to celebrate St Patrick’s Day. I’m usually in bed at nine-o-clock – I find that I can’t keep my eyes open by then even though I was very much a night owl in Ireland (someone told me that the altitude might have something to do with it), so one in the morning was a bit unusual. I was just dropping off to the background melody of bits of Danny Boy endlessly replaying itself in the hard drive, when I was awakened by the most awful wailing piercing the cricket-filled night. Out of bed and out on the balcony to see what was up. Thankfully Pea Brain was still in her run and had not been attacked by strange wild night creatures, but she was obviously unsettled by the racket. It seemed to be coming from the direction of the hospital, and as I listened I began to discern words in the wailing. It scared me to death listening to that keening in the depths of the night and it reminded me of the old stories about banshees wailing about the place when somebody was about to die. I found out the next day that someone did, in fact, die during the night in the hospital. And when someone dies, the mother/daughter/sister/cousin begins the grieving process very vocally so that everyone knows that she has lost a dear one. This woman lost a child and her keening lasted for the good part of thirty minutes. It was chillingly haunting.
A less sad night crier is the heron who slowly climbs up a scale about five or six notes and then glides back down again until it has reached the original note. And when you hear that shrieking cry at four in the morning, you want to crawl deeper under your sheets for protection against all the beasties that might be roaming around in the night. The heron’s friend, the owl, is something else entirely: this particular species of owl makes the most amazingly deep pig-like noises, and I honestly believed that the dog was in serious danger from wild boars roaming around at night until the Farm Manager enlightened me.
Then there are the bats: big ones, small ones, and medium-sized ones. Their squeaky radar sounds are a familiar part of the African night, and this campus alone must be home to a million times more bats than exist in the whole of Ireland. There is a part of Kampala called Bat Valley and I can only speculate that the majority of its inhabitants have tiny eyes and legs on wings. If you sit by our staff club at twilight, you will see thousands of them exiting from under the roof off to begin their nightly search for food. It’s an ariel version of the migration of the wildebeest.
The other creatures that take off at dusk in search for food are perhaps highest in the food chain, and among all the noises of the African night, their high-pitched hummings are noises that you definitely do not want to hear. Just as you snuggle down under the sheet and your hard drive is falling over for the day, nine times out of ten one of these irritating little beasties will start to sing soprano into your ear. Waaagh! A mosquito! You simply can’t sleep with a mosquito in the room. Even if you cover yourself from head to toe, they will find a way to bite you through the sheet or on the top of your head– they are not terribly fussy how they get their grub.
At first, I wasn’t too concerned about these irritating night-time bites, but as I began to read more about Uganda, I came to realise that these innocent-looking little insects are seriously deadly. The number of children who die needlessly each year from malaria is shocking. The number of adults who die needlessly each year from malaria is equally shocking. The female amopheles mosquito is the one to watch out for: she is very small but also extremely cunning, and her hiding places can be hard to find. Most of the mosquitos in Uganda seem to be resistant to Chloroquine, the commonly-available (and relatively cheap) prophylaxis – and, for many people, treatment. Therefore, if you are planning to stay in the tropics for a long time, you might be better to stop taking the pills altogether. I stopped taking Lariam after two weeks because they gave me really bad nightmares and I found myself swaying in the middle of complicated musings about ancient Greek ethics. The nightmares stopped but the paranoia set in and I used to get out of bed almost every night hunting for these evil little beasties until someone told me to go and buy a net. An amazingly simple solution to a nasty problem! You can lie inside your net with a great big happy smile on your face (and, if you are feeling naughty, a two-finger salute at the ready) while madame mossie sings to her heart’s content because she isn’t going to suck any blood out of you. Guaranteed a good night’s sleep.
But just as the mosquitos have decided that they are fed up with you and your net, and the bats are making their weary way home to their hanging-upside-down-places, the dawn noises begin. And they are much, much louder than the night noises in a way. I don’t think I have set my alarm clock since I arrived last June. If you can sleep through numerous cocks proclaiming their territories, the starlings fighting with one another in voices that could well have been the inspiration for the Monty Python boys pretending to be girls, the Gray Plantain Eaters who cackle madly at each other every time they move to another branch, and the numerous other birdies who have to clear the sleep out of their voice boxes as soon as they wake up, then you are either unconscious or deaf. I’ve tried the spongy airline ear plugs on Saturdays when I want a bit of a lie in, but they don’t do a lot in the way of assisting quiet sleep. But all in all, it is a lovely way to waken up – much better than the wind-up clock I used to put in a saucepan in the old, cold days.